Running from the Rescuers: New U.S. Crusades Against Sex Trafficking and the Rhetoric of Abolition


This article analyzes recent developments in U.S. anti-sex trafficking rhetoric and practices. In particular, it traces how pre-9/11 abolitionist legal frameworks have been redeployed in the context of regime change from the Clinton to Bush administrations. In the current political context, combating the traffic in women has become a common denominator political issue, uniting people across the political and religious spectrum against a seemingly indisputable act of oppression and exploitation. However, this essay argues that feminists should be the first to interrogate and critique the premises underlying many claims about global sex trafficking, as well as recent U.S.-based efforts to rescue prostitutes. It places the current raid-and-rehabilitation method of curbing sex trafficking within the broader context of Bush administration and conservative religious approaches to dealing with gender and sexuality on the international scene.

Read full article here.


“Journalist Maggie Jones’s interviews with safe house managers indicate that shelter escapes are commonplace in areas where anti-trafficking groups are currently targeting their efforts (2003). The manager of the Phnom Penh home that took in the 37 prostitutes after the Datelineinitiated raids reported to Jones that at least 40 percent of the women and girls taken to his shelter escape and return to work in Svay Pak’s brothels. Indeed, six of the teens taken by MSNBC/IJM had run away from the home within a week of the televised busts.”

“In 2003, Empower, a sex workers’ advocacy program, issued a report documenting a brothel raid in Chiang Mai, Thailand conducted by International Justice Mission in which several of the 28 arrested (or “rescued,” in abolitionist parlance) Burmese women escaped from a local institution in the fi rst 24 hours. According to Empower, the raid—conducted ostensibly for humanitarian purposes—took on many of the same features as a criminal arrest:

As soon as they had their mobile phones returned [the] women contacted Empower. They are only permitted to use their phones for a short time each evening and must hide in the bathroom to take calls outside that time. They report that they have been subjected to continual interrogation and coercion by Trafcord [an anti-trafficking NGO formed in 2002 with U.S. financial support]. Women understand that if they continue to maintain that they want to remain in Thailand and return to work that they will be held in the Public Welfare Boys Home or [a] similar institution until they recant. Similarly, they understand that refusing to be witnesses against their “traffickers” will further delay their release. (Empower 2003)

By the end of the month, more than half of the women had escaped from the shelter. What does it mean that so-called sex slaves often thwart rescue attempts? Is it intellectually and ethically responsible to call every instance of a practice “slavery” when many women involved demonstratively reject the process of protection and rehabilitation, and when they escape from supposed rescuers who aim to force them out of a life of prostitution (“captivity”) and into a life of factory work or employment in the low-paying service sector (“freedom”)?”


“Combating sex slavery has become a key Bush administration priority and its most championed humanitarian cause. The Department of Justice under John Ashcroft has spent an average of 100 million dollars a year to fi ght trafficking domestically and internationally, a sum that overshadows any other individual nation’s contributions to similar efforts.2 The current administration’s attempt to assert global moral leadership on this issue by staging interventions in any country it deems weak on trafficking sets it apart from other countries.”

“Whether or not stories of “modern-day sexual slavery” represented a real increase in the traffic in women, they also constituted prurient and cautionary tales of women unmoored from family contexts. As such, these stories are frequently selected by journalists because of their sensationalistic qualities rather than their status as exemplary stories of women in the global economy.”

“Prostitutes’ rights and harm reduction advocates are routinely described and dismissed as the “pro-prostitution mafi a” (Morse 2003) or the “pro-prostitution lobby” (Hertzke 2004) and described as champions of teaching child prostitutes to use condoms. The hegemony of this new anti-trafficking coalition did not arise in a vacuum: to some degree antitrafficking feminists’ discursive victories in the 1990s paved the way for the ascendancy of this neoabolitionist movement.”

Ashcroft allocated 91 million dollars in appropriations for anti-trafficking initiatives while awarding million-dollar grants to evangelical groups like Shared Hope International and International Justice Mission (“Report to Congress” 2004). The State Department now produces an annual Trafficking in Persons Report that monitors the progress of the United States and other countries in breaking up trafficking rings, arresting their ringleaders, and rescuing their victims. Like the war on terrorism, what abolitionists have called the global “War Against Trafficking” is decidedly U.S. directed.4 The United States is also using its status as a superpower and major donor nation to force other countries to allow its citizens to raid brothels and send prostitutes into rehabilitation programs as well as to create domestic legislation that further criminalizes sex trafficking (and by extension other forms of prostitution). A centerpiece of the TVPA is its provision to rank nations according to their status as importers or exporters of trafficking victims and announce these rankings in an annual Victims of Violence and Trafficking in Persons Act of 2000 (TIPS Report). Tier 3 countries are deemed to have the worst trafficking track records; Tier 2 are borderline cases; and Tier 1 nations are seen to have complied with the U.S. government’s anti-trafficking recommendations. From the vantage point of many abolitionists, the TIPS Report constitutes an example of the United States exerting moral leadership in the world. However, there is a strong correlation between the Bush administration’s larger foreign policy goals—that have little to do with morality—and its willingness to place countries on Tier 3 status.

Consider also the case of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s series on buying the freedom of two young sex slaves in Poipet, Cambodia, that originally ran in January and February 2004, and which he revisited in January 2005. In the original three-part series, Kristof describes purchasing two Cambodian teens from brothels and returning them to their families, all the while casting the journalist as swashbuckling hero, castigating feminists, and lavishing praise on the Bush administration for its actions on behalf of women. A year later Kristof visits the slaves whose freedom he allegedly secured and fi nds that one of them had returned to Poipet and her old brothel. Rather than altering his paradigm regarding prostitution, he rationalizes Srey Mom’s return to the brothel by appealing to her drug addiction, her “eerily close relationship” with the brothel owner, and her low self-esteem.”

“The construction of women exclusively through the lens of violence has triggered a spate of domestic and international reforms focused on the criminal law, which are used to justify state restrictions on women’s rights—for the protection of women” (2002, 6). As we have seen in the case of Western-sponsored brothel raids, the United States is using the protection of women as a rationale to import its law enforcement tactics and project its power internationally, while conveniently merging these interests with a crackdown on the sexuality and rights of women. The emphasis on victimization in the West is historically linked to the exigencies of activist publicity around race and gender issues in the context of a masculinist state that exalted and protected only those victims whose innocence—and distance from state-based oppression—could be established or asserted in sympathetic terms….

Focusing primarily on abuses like violence against women and organizing around them as though they were the only distinctly gendered form of human rights violation, ultimately casts women as victims in need of protection from harm rather than as subjects deserving of positive rights. Emphasizing the most abject victims, while often an important and efficacious activist strategy, runs the risk of mobilizing media and governmental institutions in protectionist scenarios that overshadow demands for other forms of social and economic rights (and, in this case, the creation of laws that do not construe sex as inherently dangerous for women).”



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